A Deep Dive Look At High-Protein Deer Feed

Dr. Karl Miller, QDMA's Brian Murphy and others weigh in on the pros and possible cons of supplemental high-protein feed for deer.

Daryl Kirby | June 1, 2005

A trough full of a high-protein, high-dollar deer food… what was once unheard of by most in Georgia is now a growing trend. Ten years ago you could count on two hands the number of landowners or property managers who had troughs filled with high-protein deer food. Now, there are several companies right here in Georgia selling high-protein, pelletized deer food, and tons of it are hitting the woods every month.

Opinions are varied on the pros and cons of this new trend in the deer woods.

Some hunters spend a considerable amount of money on supplemental feed and use it as a tool in an intensive, overall plan for growing bigger, healthier deer. These are the success stories — the Banks Farm in Morgan County, Rocky Branch Plantation and surrounding lands in Harris County, several properties in Hancock County, and many others — where bucks like Horn Donkey, Big Moe, and Skyscraper grew antlers as grand as their hunter-given nicknames.

Scenes like this trail-camera picture have more and more hunters trying high-protein supplemental feed as a way to grow bigger, healthier deer. This picture came from Weyman Hunt at Godfrey’s in Madison, which sells a high-protein deer mix for trough feeders.

For others, supplemental feeding is a far less intensive endeavor. These folks feed by the bag instead of by the ton, and it’s done simply with the idea of adding a little something that they hope might help the deer, or maybe to make it easier to get trail-camera pictures.

Then there are those who feel the deer don’t need this kind of help, that there’s something a bit unnatural about feeding deer like a herd of cattle.

Finally, there are some who believe feeding deer is a slippery slope, that feeders are a ticking time bomb for diseases spread by close contact among concentrations of deer. Many in this last group have wildlife degrees, which in itself should make anyone feeding or considering a feeding program at least sit up and take notice.

Brian Murphy is the executive director of the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA). Brian and QDMA have looked at and continue to look closely at the issue of feeding deer.

“We try to take a fairly balanced approach to the subject, because it’s very complex,” Brian said.

That balanced approach is a general support of supplemental feeding, but with some big conditions placed upon that support — only when there is no risk of disease, and only when feeding is done as part of an overall deer-management plan.

QDMA was quick to support a ban of supplemental feeding and baiting in Wisconsin when chronic wasting disease (CWD) was detected in wild deer. One of the first steps for states with CWD is to ban feeding.

One of the most-researched instances of disease in deer and the effects of feeding deer is the bovine tuberculosis (TB) outbreak in Michigan. A 1997 study reported that, “Under the unnatural circumstances of supplemental feeding, inhalation of the bovine TB bacteria or consumption of feed contaminated with bovine TB bacteria by coughing and exhalation is much more likely to occur.”

Dr. Karl Miller, a UGA professor and one of the nation’s most-respected white-tailed deer researchers, mentioned the TB problem in Michigan when asked about feeding deer.

“Hunters up there were dumping piles of sugar beets, corn, everything else in the woods. That disease scenario sets up. There’s no question that congregating deer raised the risk factor,” Karl said.

He said that the deer population is also a key factor.

Supplemental feed, when done right, may have the biggest benefit by improving the condition of does. Quality nutrition aids a doe’s milk production, which gives the doe’s fawn a jump start.

“If you put a congregating point on top of an overpopulated herd, it exacerbates the problem. If you have the proper herd management and the proper habitat out there, disease shouldn’t be a problem. Basically, you don’t want to put the deer on welfare. Deer on supplemental feed where the deer are on welfare, that is going to be a problem. When it’s just supplemental feeding to give a little added boost to an already fine-tuned herd, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

Brian feels that the disease risks associated with supplemental feeding in Georgia are low, at least for now.

“Currently, biologically the risks are minuscule — currently. I’m a biologist. I realize that when concentrating deer, if something were to get introduced here, while it wouldn’t be a mechanism for them to get the disease, it would facilitate the spread of the disease. But I asked one of the major opponents of feeding, a researcher, .”

Kent Kammermeyer is about to retire after a long career as a WRD biologist, and he is a respected whitetail researcher and expert on food plots and quality management.

“Probably worse than disease potential is parasite transmission,” Kent said. “Deer get and pass back and forth all kinds of worms — five or six types of stomach worms, gullet worms, worms in their noses, brain worms, lung worms — all kinds of stuff that when you concentrate deer together are going back and forth,” Kent said.

“When you talk about diseases, there are the two big ones, chronic wasting disease, which we don’t have here, and hemorrhagic disease (bluetongue or EHD), that we do have here. When you’re going to have an EHD outbreak, you’re going to have it anyway whether you have feeders or not, but it’s going to be a little worse when you have deer concentrated around feeders. The disease and parasite risks are enough of a concern that if I were going to supplementally feed, I would use extra precautions. First thing, move your feeders every once in a while, even if you only move them 100 feet. I would recommend troughs, get it up off the ground and have it covered.”

Two research studies have shown that preferred native plants can become overbrowsed near feeders, another reason to move them periodically.

Land manager Glenn Garner uses supplemental feeding as part of a very successful deer-management plan on the Harris County land formerly known as Rocky Branch Plantation, and he recommends a thorough cleaning of feeders.

“Every year before I start feeding again, I Clorox my troughs real good. I kill anything that may still be lingering in the trough. I make sure to get the corners real good where some food might have been left,” Glenn said.

All of the experts we spoke with stressed that having a deer herd at or below the carrying capacity of the land is critical for both the success of supplemental feeding, and to reduce the risk of disease or parasite transmission.

Brian Murphy cites the Morgan County example of the Banks Farm, where Jeff Banks and the hunters in their club keep the deer population well below the carrying capacity of the land.

“They’re at about 30 deer per square mile, while the neighboring lands are as high as 60.

“That’s the important point. Yeah, he does supplemental feeding, but he does other things that are important, too. He manages his entire habitat. He’s not using feeding as a shortcut,”  Brian said.

When developing a management plan on a tract, most land managers would consider having 5 percent of the property in food plots as an “intensive” food-plot program — one that can make a difference.

“Jeff Banks is at 10 percent, and he’s still getting, I believe at least, measurable benefits above and beyond his intensive food-plot program by feeding,” Brian said. “He’s got bucks weighing 240 pounds and does weighing 160. I know a lot of people that intensively plant food plots in northern Georgia, and they’re not getting anywhere near that kind of body weight or antler development by age class that he’s seeing. It’s not empirical evidence, but in my book it’s evidence that’s he’s getting some extra benefit.

“Now, can most Georgia hunters afford to do it at the level he’s doing it? And that’s what you have to do to see those kinds of benefits. You can’t just put an occasional basket of corn or something out for the deer. You have to be in it for the long haul, which is tons of feed on a weekly basis once you get it cranked up.”

The cost of an intensive supplemental feeding program is something that will keep many landowners from providing enough feed to make a measurable difference.

Karl said, “If you’re going to supplementally feed, supplementally feed smart. Food plots are probably the best option if you can do them. If you can get a plot of ladino clover to produce a ton per acre per month of dry forage during peak production, what’s a ton per month of supplemental feed run? There are certain times of year when you can’t target with food plots. Those would be the times to target with supplemental feeding.

“For the people who are just feeding to have some fun, or maybe put a camera up, it doesn’t hurt,” Karl said, “You’re not really going to have an impact, but it’s the same as a 1/4-acre food plot on a log landing, that’s just scratching in the dirt and having fun.”

Karl again stressed the role of herd management as a key for improving the quality of your deer. Herd management is a fancy way of saying pull the trigger. This is often a tough pill to swallow for some landowners. They enjoy seeing deer. They want their grandkids to see lots of deer. All of the experts we spoke with said that keeping the deer population within the carrying capacity of the land is critical for supplemental feeding to not only work, but to reduce the risks associated with congregating deer. To do this, you have to shoot does, and when you shoot them can make a bigger difference than most hunters realize.

“If a doe is eating three pounds of forage a day, and you wait 90 days so that instead of shooting them at the beginning of the season you wait until after Christmas, well that’s almost 300 pounds of forage you just lost,” Karl said. “People always want to do something more for the deer. The best thing you can do is make sure that the deer density is low enough that the habitat can provide for them. And then you can think about going on and doing something more.”

You can save some money in a feeding program by targeting your feeding with the more expensive, high-protein feeds when deer need and will use that protein most. High-dollar, high-protein food in the winter is literally going in one end of a deer and out the other, with little benefit in between.

“In the winter, deer are in a maintenance mode,” Kent said. “They are either trying to gain fat or maintain body weight. Protein is for the growth mode — milk in does, growth of antlers. Deer are nowhere near in a growth mode in the winter. In the wintertime you can waste a lot money feeding something expensive like soybeans that is low in carbohydrates, but are high in protein that they’re not going to take advantage of. Growth mode starts in early spring, about from mid-March all the way through the summer, and it would gradually stop again in early fall, when they switch back into a fat and carbohydrate mode for the winter — maintenance mode.”

Kent and Karl both said that given a choice, they much prefer food plots to supplemental feeding, but the land managers I talked to who have been in a high-protein feeding program for several years are all pleased with their results.

Glenn Garner said they plan to continue to invest in their supplemental-feeding program in Harris County, and that he’s seen no ill-effects from supplemental feeding.

“I haven’t seen anything that would make me want to quit feeding. I haven’t seen any signs of anything negative about these feeders, and I’m out there every day.”

Some of the advantages that Glenn has seen with supplemental feeding include taking pressure off the young growth of new food plots, and filling in the gaps when warm-season and cool-season plots are being turned and planted.

“It definitely takes pressure off your early food plots — allows them to get up, get roots on them. We also saw that on average the body weight per age structure averaged about 12 pounds better per year. Food plots definitely had a role in that, and so did keeping the deer numbers lower,” Glenn said.

It’s impossible to know which of these factors had the greatest influence on better quality deer. More than likely, it was the combination of all three.

Another trend that has exploded among deer hunters is the use of trail cameras. Feeders are often used to get pictures — of coons. Well, deer, too. Glenn uses his high-protein feeders and trail cameras and gets a good inventory of the bucks on the property.

“When you have a bunch of ground busted up for warm-season food plots, a lot of food is gone that was there before, and they’ll start relying pretty heavily on the feeders. Then in the summer when it really gets hot, they start hammering the feeders really hard again,” he said.

During those two time periods, Glenn gets a handle of what bucks are out there by setting up the trail cameras around his feeders.

“There are very few surprises come hunting season,” he said. “When you’re trying to manage and protect certain age classes, this takes a lot of guess work out it when you already know how old the deer is when he steps out. When guys come in, we have them look at a photo album of our trail-camera pictures. We show them the bucks that are superstars that we’d like to get another year or two on.”

To have an impact through supplemental feeding on the quality of the deer on your property, expect it to take several years. Weyman Hunt of Godfrey’s in Madison began high-protein supplemental feeding in the late 1990s, and for the past four years Godfrey’s has been selling a deer mix.

“It’s amazed me how much it’s grown. I never would have imagined we would be selling that many tons of deer feed,” Weyman said.

He stressed that feeding is not a quick fix, that it will likely take several years before an impact is seen.

“The most efficient time in an animal’s life is when it’s young. When does are eating it, they are producing more milk and fawns are getting off to a better start. The healthier a young buck is, the more horn he can put on. If he weighs an extra five pounds, that’s a definite advantage for him getting a head start for the next year. Older deer aren’t going to be affected by a feeding program in the first year. Deer have to grow up on a feeding program to really get the full benefit from it.”

“There’s no question in my mind that in the state of Georgia, at least in areas where agriculture is limited, that you can improve deer quality by feeding,” Brian said.

For some, supplemental feeding can make a real improvement in the quality of deer. The success stories are very impressive. Consider your risks and rewards, and talk to an expert who can evaluate your management situation, then you can consider using high-protein feed in your overall management plan.

For others — and I can raise my hand now to be included — high-protein feed is far from an intensive management plan. I have two troughs on 120 acres in Morgan County. Starting in January they usually have some feed in them up until about this time of year, when the feeders are empty as often as they have some food in them. We’re busy going to the ball field or cutting grass. In the late summer we might run a trail camera on them for a few weeks.

Then, in mid-August they’re packed up in the back of my pick-up truck and hauled to the house.

Am I having a negative impact on my deer herd by feeding? If I even remotely suspected it, I’d never buy another bag of deer food.

Am I having a positive impact? Probably none we’d ever notice, but certainly no less than the apple trees we planted, or the persimmon trees we fertilize, and when you put it all together with our iron-clay peas in the summer and clover in the winter, we like to think we’re doing some good… which is what it’s all about for some landowners.

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